Dr. Heather Nebesniak and Dr. Andrea Haynes are 2016 graduates of the Department of Educational Leadership's doctoral program and both share a background in Early Childhood.
As leaders in Nebraska school districts — Dr. Haynes in Westside Community Schools, one of Omaha's metro school districts, and Dr. Nebesniak in Ord Public Schools, a smaller, rural district — they faced similar challenges during the pandemic: how to respond to and plan around an unprecedented event, while meeting the needs of their staff and students. Both champion the importance of advocacy and support for teachers, as well as the critical need for mental health and other basic services at this time.
"Nearly all students have experienced challenges to their mental health and well-being. Many lost access to school-based services and support for a long time period, with early research showing disparities based< on race, ethnicity, LGBTQIA2S+ identities, students living below the poverty threshold, and other factors," explained Dr. Haynes.
"Stakeholders can partner with schools to ensure we have the critical infrastructure for mental health support for all students. This includes access to social workers, outpatient treatment, solid programming for social emotional learning incorporated within the classroom, less academic pressure, and more counseling support."
Dr. Nebesniak implemented two critical services from the ground up in Ord -- a food assistance program and mental health support. Early in the pandemic, Dr. Nebesniak's building principals, school nurse, and nutrition services staff implemented a summer meal program. In addition to serving drive through pick-up meals on site, transportation staff delivered food directly to school families and to a neighboring community pick-up site.
"We drove food around for that whole summer and as a bonus, we could put our eyes on our kids. I equated it to home visits for some families. Our principals and our staff saw our kids' daily life. They saw that interaction," explained Dr. Nebesniak.
"We also started a new assistance plan that provided counseling for our kids. It is fairly common in the Omaha Metro area, but that was unheard of out here, and it took the pandemic and CARES dollars to make that happen for us. The number one sentiment I heard from parents was, 'I know my kids are okay, but I worry about the kids who don't have the home I have.'"
Q: How did the pandemic change you as a leader?
Dr. Haynes: "I have found great value in being able to practice 'intentional calm.' I see this as the ability to detach from a panic-stricken situation and think clearly about how to navigate it. Intentional calm is a focus on humility but not helplessness. I can now better see past challenges as roadblocks and view them as problems to be solved, even learned from. When a leader is calm in a deliberate way, the team and community can face challenges more creatively."
My UNO education provided me with the needed mindsets that continually help me to look ahead, think critically, and remain agile. "
- Dr. Andrea Haynes
"Within Westside, we continue to focus our daily efforts on supporting our front lines building staff (teachers, admin, and support staff) by arming them with the most up-to date Covid-19 procedural safety information they need to effectively do their jobs each day and keep our school communities safe. One thing we have learned by slowing down and proceeding calmly is that our building-based school staff have endured the brunt of the negative impacts of this pandemic. Providing for formal ways to listen and gauge their feedback helps us in the central office make more informed decisions each day."
Dr. Nebesniak: "Every day, 700 people come to our two buildings. Nowhere else in our county, in our area, do 700 people gather on a daily basis. We have the responsibility to keep the buildings safe and clean, to keep the students fed, to make sure that paychecks go home to staff, and to make sure that the quality of life that they want to have can happen. That responsibility is huge."
"I've learned through this process to give more grace, and to also be very vocal about giving grace. So many teachers and parents were worried about grades during our closure. I can't say grades don't matter, but I had to be able to express where we were going to land during this pandemic. I learned to be more articulate and purposeful, because I know that as a leader, when I say something, it often instantly means 'do or go.' It took a long time to get to a point where we all could understand, we must have a safe spot to think about ideas, to give ourselves time to think and plan before we act."
Q: How did your UNO leadership degree help you navigate the challenges of the pandemic?
Dr. Haynes: "My UNO education provided me with the needed mindsets that continually help me to look ahead, think critically, and remain agile. Whether as a building leader when this all first started or now, as an Assistant Superintendent, I am prepared to unify teams behind a single purpose and frame questions for our team to investigate and solve. The EDL program at UNO equipped me to embrace action, even in ambiguity. Understanding that often you will not be able to judge your decisions until you have succeeded or failed requires a great deal of courage and a deep self-awareness."
"In addition, my EDL experience taught me that swift action does not involve rushing headfirst into motion. It requires an assessment of what is at the greatest risk and where you need to shift gears, leverage people who can help you see a new angle, and then create a quick plan of action."
Dr. Nebesniak: "My networking experience was so important. Early in the pandemic, I could not make decisions alone. There were 18, 19-hour days where I was absolutely exhausted, and my phone was still going off at midnight. When I worked in the Omaha area, I was part of MOEC. I did the UNO Leadership Academy, so I had great resources and contacts from there. I was constantly around other administrators. Out in my rural world, that's not always the case. The Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association (NRCSA) became really important. I worked with other rural superintendents to create a return to school plan that was shared with NDE. That helped our voices be heard. And my superintendent colleagues from Omaha said, 'We want in on this. We're not a member of NRCSA because we're not rural schools, but you are doing great work!' That work helped build a bridge, helped create a standard practice."
This story appeared in the most recent issue of the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences Annual Report.